Encounter

While in graduate school, I worked as a doula for teenage girls at a local pregnancy center. Most, but not all, of these women were first time moms, without a supportive father in the picture—and very often without a supportive family member of any kind. They could come to the agency for parenting classes, health info as well as baby clothes, car seats, etc. My role was to accompany them at the hospital during delivery, to encourage them, and to make sure that they had a voice in their delivery and their stay at the hospital as they welcomed their babies.

This role is by far among the most influential experiences of my adult life, as I was invited into the most intimate and vulnerable moments of a family’s’ early beginning. Culturally-speaking, unless a woman has a sister, there is seldom an opportunity to be invited into this place of welcoming a new child with an expectant mother, as is custom in so much of the world. Comparatively, birth in the U.S. has become an isolated experience—especially for single mothers who are choosing to give life.

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I remember the first day I showed up for a meeting with the other doulas at the local pregnancy center. I was excited, nervous and proud to be there after all of my training. The woman at the front desk handed me a clipboard for check in. I grabbed it and began reading through the paperwork.

[Based on the nature of the questions, it was obvious that she thought I was a teen mom.]

Self-conscious about looking young for my role, combined with the indignation of being assumed a pregnant(!), teen, I quickly corrected her and took my “rightful” seat at the table for my meeting.

I have re-visited this encounter often, and with regret.

Of course I could have been mistaken for a teen mom—after all, they were the clients served by this agency. The fact that the receptionist didn’t know me from any other woman at the clinic meant that I was new, not judged. And yet, that was my unfortunate takeaway at the time.

Given a healthy amount of hindsight, I have realized a few things. More than welcoming sweet babies into the world and having a small role in the vulnerable, lonely work of these brave women who choose to deliver their babies in difficult circumstances, I owe these women a debt of gratitude for their genuine (and perhaps even, unintended) education.  Allowing themselves to be accompanied by a stranger as they crossed the threshold of familiarity and childhood into and unknown and frightening world of young adulthood as a single mom showed me just how much I had to learn about radical self-sacrifice, love and trust. Sure I was the birth coach they’d been assigned, but these women were without question, my teachers.

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Doesn’t this exchange get to the heart of today’s Gospel reading from Luke? Jesus is instructing the Pharisees to get mixed up in a diverse crowd—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind—‘those who can never repay you.’ This is the exact message Pope Francis has been echoing since 2014 when he first spoke of a Culture of Encounter.

We must strive and ask for the grace to create a culture of encounter,

of a fruitful encounter,

of an encounter that restores to each person his or her own dignity as a child of God,

 the dignity of the living person.

— Pope Francis

I am slowly learning.

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How often do these scenarios Jesus is describing come up for us? You know the ones where we are hosting a dinner party and inviting all kinds of folks we don’t know and might never see again. They’re infrequent. It does remind me of those magnanimous folks who start planning at this time of year, to host the Thanksgiving or Christmas meal for out-of-towners, for college students, foreign exchange students, etc. These are the people with the uncanny knack for gathering folks because it is simply time to gather and we are made for communion with one another.

The daily readings are hinting at the waning of ordinary time, the season of anticipation and preparing to welcome those we might not be expecting. How are you hearing the invitation to see stranger as guest?

Am I seeking a place to gather and be known?

Am I being invited to consider a role as such a host?

What might I be surprised to learn I have in common with those I have separated myself from?

With whom am I already in relationship that is bearing fruits of unexpected grace?

Educational Ecumenism: Learning from our Brothers and Sisters in Christ

“It is my hope that interreligious and ecumenical cooperation will demonstrate that men and women do not have to forsake their identity, whether ethnic or religious, in order to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters,” said Pope Francis at an interreligious meeting in Sri Lanka in 2016. He also professed that, “if we are honest in presenting our convictions, we will be able to see more clearly what we hold in common.” I had the chance to witness such ecumenicism this weekend. My roommate belongs to the Church of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormon church. And I was able to accompany him to his Sunday service. I was interested about what the service would be like and what would be taught in the talks. Remarkably, I gained a lot from the service, as many aspects of the Christian life that we hold in common were presented. It is humbling to be reminded by another faith that you are not always living out yours to the best of your abilities. Having an open mind toward others, while remaining true to your convictions, may surprise you with what you can learn. In particular, I was reminded of the importance of being present and involved in the mass and your parish, knowing the Scriptures, and living out charity daily.

I believe that the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. One of our greatest treasures is that of apostolic succession - the fact that we can trace the lineage of popes all the way back to when Christ tells Peter, “[a]nd so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). Our Church comes directly from the authority of Christ. And, he left us the Eucharist, his true Body and Blood, which he gave to us at the Last Supper. It is the “source and summit of the Christian Life,” from where we receive grace and abundant blessings (Lumen Gentium 11). There are also many other rich traditions that the Church has practiced throughout the centuries. The veneration of the saints, the rosary, and Church doctrine are riches that we pass on through the Tradition of the Church. They are not arcane formalities, but eternal truths.

Still, one aspect of the Mormon service that struck me was that members of the congregation were chosen to give talks during the first part of the service. The topics covered many themes including being children of God, service, and the Christian calling. During another part of the service, members of the congregation led groups of members, their same age, in Sunday school. A guy in his mid-20s led my group in discussing a reading about service.

The Catholic Church has a richness in the tradition of the priesthood, being the leader of the parish and minister of the Sacraments. But, these Mormons giving talks in front of the congregation made me wonder how many Catholics would be willing to give a talk at mass, if that were a part of our liturgy; and, it reminded me of how easy it can be to approach the mass in a passive way, just sitting in the pew without paying attention to the Word being professed.

Catholic involvement in the mass has been declining in recent decades. According to a Public Religion Research Institute survey, only around 40% of US Catholics say that they attend mass weekly. Not attending mass weekly may also correlate with a lack of participation in mass when you do go. That is a big generalization. But, if you do not go to the gym regularly, you will be out of shape when you do - the same with the mass. More astonishingly, a Pew Forum study found that less than 50% of Catholics believe in the True Presence of the Eucharist - the center of the liturgy and our faith. If you do not believe that, upon what is your Catholic faith based? As I mentioned before, it is the source and summit of the Christian life. If Christ is the Son of God, then everything that he said must be true, including, “‘this is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me,’” and “‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you’” (Luke 22:19-20).

A common stereotype of Catholics is that we have ignorance of Scripture. And, as St. Jerome said, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” There is such a depth to the mass and the Sacraments and how they relate to Scripture that it is a wonder why we still do not know Scripture as well as our Christian brothers and sisters. That stereotype should challenge us to dive deeper into the Scriptures, the Eucharist, and the mass. There is often talk about the shortage of priests in the Church. But, with an increase in priests needs to come a rise in devout parishioners. Is it just that there are not enough priests to lead parishes, or that we as Catholics are not doing enough to foster a culture that encourages young men and women to pursue their religious vocation? Surely, more priests are needed to administer the Sacraments. But, holy lay people are also needed to be active in the Church and guide society toward charity in Christ. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “sanctify yourself, and you will sanctify society.”

Another interesting part of the Mormon faith, is their sincere following of the fourth commandment - keep holy the sabbath day. They try their hardest not to do any labor, for school or work, on Sunday, and reserve it for church and family. In that way, Sunday is set apart from the rest of the week as a special day. In college, I had a few Catholic friends who did the same thing. They had such a freedom and joy on Sunday because it was their day of rest. I think it takes a lot of self-restraint and trust to live in such a way. You have to be diligent the rest of the week to accomplish your work, and you have to trust that God will see through whatever you did not get to complete. Then, on Sunday, you can do what truly matters, spend time with God and your family. It truly focuses your week and your life back on Christ.

Mormons also devote themselves to missionary work. Usually, each person goes on a two year mission to serve and share their religion. What an active way to live out their faith. In the Catholic Church there are countless religious orders, charities, and missionary groups that serve the impoverished and share the Gospel. But, often these activities are limited to those called to a religious vocation, or those very involved in their parish. For others, acts of charity are limited to throwing a $20 in the basket during the preparation of the gifts during mass. In that mentality is a strong sense of bystanderism. We think that as long as we show up to mass and do our weekly duty, we have done enough. And, even when we do go to mass, we easily become complacent by not paying attention and not participating. We reduce it to just another thing to check off our weekly list, to make sure we get to heaven, or to please our family. But, Catholicism is not just a requirement for Sundays, it is a lifestyle centered on a person, Jesus Christ. If we call ourselves Catholics, we have to fully accept what Christ and his Church teach, and do our best to live it out on a daily basis.

My previous parish priest, an old yet vivacious man, used to always say that Christ came to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted.” We, often time comforted by a lifestyle of convenience, can do more to give of ourselves daily in a way like St. Mother Teresa said, “doing small things with great love.” Or as Pope Francis said, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” “Out in the streets” can mean visiting the sick and impoverished in far away places. Or, more easily, you can simply live charitably toward your family, coworkers, and the needy in your community. Acts of charity, large and small, are what will convert our own hearts and society.

The Catholic faith is so rich with teaching and traditions that have been passed down for 2000 years. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in mass attendance and a rise in fallen away Catholics. However, there is a new generation of Catholics who are seeking to understand more about Jesus through the Church and her Tradition. The pendulum is swinging back from a lack of catechesis post-Vatican II toward a revived interest in the beauty of the faith. By realizing what we ourselves are lacking, trying to grow in our faith daily, and “opening wide the doors to Christ,” we will find our salvation and attract others to do the same (St. John Paul II). And by encouraging all of our Christian brothers and sisters to fully encounter Christ, Jesus’s prayer to God the Father will be fulfilled: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21).

 

Benedictine Vows Part 3: Obedience

In 2008, when I seriously began to discern my vocation with the Benedictines in Washington, DC, I asked some of the monks what they thought was the most difficult aspect of monastic life.  I had been reading the Rule of Benedict where, in chapter 58, I first learned about the vows of conversatio morum and stability, which are different from the better-known vows of poverty and chastity.  What was the most difficult aspect of monastic life?  In a diverse community of men, I received a diverse array of answers, but one in particular stands out most.  One of the men who has been a monk longer than I have been alive answered, “Obedience is hardest.”  I think he’s right.  But what makes obedience so difficult?  

St. Benedict first mentions obedience in the opening line of the Prologue to the Rule: Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience, thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away.  Here we see at the very beginning of the Rule, that obedience is not easy; obedience is toil, it  requires work.  St. Benedict goes further in the next sentence of his Prologue, comparing obedience to wielding a sword or any other type of weapon: “To thee, therefore, my speech is now directed, who, giving up thine own will, takest up the strong and most excellent arms of obedience, to do battle for Christ the Lord, the true King.”  This reference to spiritual battle is redolent of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 6, where he writes that we must “put on the full armor of God.”  Although St. Paul does not refer to obedience, he does say that we should use the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17)  Is not the sword of the Spirit that is the word of God none other than the very person of Jesus Christ, whom, St. Paul reminds the Philippians, was “obedient unto death - even death on a cross”?  (Philippians 2:18)

So, obedience has an arduous connotation and is synonymous with struggle, effort, hard work, dying to self. It is a weapon in the spiritual battle, and is personified by Jesus Christ who was obedient unto death on a cross.  At first glance, none of these ideas is pleasant, uplifting or edifying.  But let us recall that in the Book of Genesis, Jacob wrestled (struggled) with the angel and here had his name changed to “Israel” that literally means, “he who struggles with God”! (Genesis 32:28)  Struggles in the spiritual life are nothing new and go back at least to the time of ancient Israel.  This side of heaven, men and women will always struggle in matters of faith.  Even if I were to believe everything taught by the Church to be true, I might still wrestle with the fact that others do not believe as I do.  In this case, more likely than not, I will pass judgment on those who do not yet believe, thus falling into the trap of the pharisee who prays “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)  In this parable of the pharisee and the tax collector, our prayer must be like that of the latter who “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ ”

There is nothing easy about the spiritual life if one takes it seriously, and humility is required.  Jesus chose a cross for a reason, and his instruction to his disciples that they must “deny [themselves] take up their crosses and follow [him]” (Matthew 16:24) did not have much of a reference point when they heard him.  Two thousand years later, however, we can see the full context of Jesus’ instruction.  God does not ask anything of us that He, Himself has not already experienced.

Fighting against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12) is not for the weak or faint of heart.  This is true for all who take their faith seriously.  The spiritual life is not easy, nor is it intended to be.  But, nothing in this world that has any value is free - other than the unmerited gift of faith.  This gift is freely available to everyone, a gift waiting to be received.  For this reason we are obedient when we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. (Matthew 6:10)

Hygge. Of the Heart

I think that we sometimes as Catholics don’t give our trendy culture enough of a fair shake.  I know I have my antennae up when I’m reading a trending article laying out a philosophy for life, and for good reason.  A lot of that stuff is junk, but every once in awhile there is a little pearl that sparkles in the rubbishy pile.  Recently there have been a couple of particularly interesting forces pulling the younger generation- simplicity/minimalism and Hygge.  They both seem to go hand in hand and I think that they (with prudence and moderation in mind) offer 1) a new way to live out the gospel imperative in the modern world, and 2) a new openness to certain elements of the gospel.

Let's start with the concept of Hygge.  Hygge is difficult to translate, but it is a Danish concept that includes comfort, intimacy, and “cozy togetherness.”  The Danish are statistically the happiest people on earth.  They point to this philosophy of life as one of the primary principles in their secret recipe for rampant happiness.  Hygge conjures up images of roaring fireplaces, warm socks, fluffy throw blankets, deep conversations with friends, games of charades, soul food, hot cider, etc. to the Danes.  It dictates what they do on nights and weekends and how they relate to their friends.

While there is a lot to be said about the exterior practice of Hygge, I want to talk about Hygge of the heart- prayer and divine intimacy with the Lord.

I had a vague experiential knowledge of Hygge when I first heard about it, and while Christmas lights, warm cocoa, etc. did come to mind it was my first experience of the interior life that really defined the feeling of contentment Hygge is supposed to be all about.  

In college I had a massive conversion while praying the rosary during commercial breaks on Christmas break.  My guilt caught up to me and I wagered that a few decades might help eke me into purgatory.  When I got back to college and eventually found myself sitting in the Newman center chapel after weeks of contented rosary-praying and guilt-ridden everything else, I felt all at once like I was in over my head and cozily at home.  When I started to pray I felt like I was finally doing what I was meant to do my whole life.  But I had no idea what I was doing, so I started glancing around and seeing what other, holier people do in prayer.  I watched how they postured themselves, I noticed when they closed their eyes and where they looked when they didn't.  I took notes on how to genuflect more holily.  But most of all I tried to take note of what they were reading.  At that time St. Faustina’s diary was making its way through the ranks of devoted Newman-ites, and after a couple of nights of inquiry about her story and who she was, I rush ordered my copy of the diary.  

When I began to pray with St. Faustina I began to experience an interior kind of Hygge.  I imagined myself in her convent, so small yet so immense because of the implications of what she was receiving and how she was praying.  The whole world fit in the walls of her cell, and she had access to the heart of Jesus and a duty to pray for every soul.  The intimate way that she talked with Jesus jumped off the page.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but guessed that a saint was a pretty good model for prayer so I started talking to God informally like she did.  I borrowed a word here and there and wove in my own sentiments.  I felt like I was in a cozy cabin in the woods, hidden away from the world I was trying to reject outside the chapel walls.  It was cozy for lack of a better word.  I felt communion with the person of Christ and weirdly with the other people independently praying in the chapel while I was.  

The transformation was barely noticeable.  I found that when I read the diary that I was reading some of the sentiments resounding in my own soul.  I was wandering the corridors of my own “inner monastery.”  I was actually praying with the Saint and even borrowing some of her zeal as I prayed.  But when I left the chapel the “cozy” feeling started to remain with me.  I found that my room, my workplace, my classrooms, etc. all had that cozy feeling.  I retreated into my heart where God and I were building a meeting place together.  God’s presence was the ultimate Hygge.  Even in the struggles and the dryness and the strife and pain of my rapidly changing life, I kept finding myself drawn to that place and experiencing a mysterious happiness.

I found Hygge of the heart in prayer.  The Danes may have found a great way to achieve a certain level of happiness but the saints have found the real Hygge in prayer.

In the next article I’ll talk more about the external ramifications of this philosophy for Catholics.

Feast of the Guardian Angels

Aside from the guardian angel prayer, my next closest association with this feast is its affiliation with planting bulbs. While working for the Franciscans, one of the biggest parish festivals we celebrated was the last weekend in September. Part of this celebration was a fundraiser that included the selling of bulbs…tulips, gladiolus, daffodils, etc. The idea is intended to be both a seasonally-appropriate way to support the youth programs, and a way to get fall planting on the calendar for Midwestern gardeners. I didn’t come from a family of gardeners, so this fall planting business was new to me, but the association has stuck.

It turns out that these bulbs go into the ground at the end of the growing season, when the soil is about to freeze and be covered by snow. They are buried and all but forgotten. In the springtime, however, they are the first to appear—almost startling green and hardy.  They offer the first splashes of color to a barren landscape, and welcome source of nourishment for pollinators. They are literally life-giving  and the metaphor smacks of the Paschal Mystery.

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At the time, I lived in an apartment and thoughts of planting and yards were a bit beyond my lived experience. Maybe you’re in this place too—where you’re ‘adulting’ in different ways that you see demonstrated by parish festivals and involvement. It’s not uncommon for there to be a wealth of opportunities for youth retreats, mom groups, Knights of Columbus breakfasts; blood drives/food drives/diaper drives, rosary-makers, nursery helpers and the occasional young adult outing. (Thanks goodness for the gift of communities like CBC, am I right?!).

If I may, I hope to offer a word of encouragement and invitation for this contingent of the Church, because I think the work and presence of young adults within the worshipping community is not all that different than that of the work of the bulbs—in that it represents the beautiful and welcomed blooming of seeds long-since planted.

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As a person who has experienced this interim in church life, no longer a youth--still discerning what comes next, I have dabbled in all kinds of church ministries/classes/events. At worst I felt a little vulnerable, a lone-ranger of sorts because I was trying on roles in the church to see what fit me. At best, I was welcomed and made to feel a valued and contributing presence in the community. This is important discernment work, period. Like all discernment work, it is a growing experience and it is a fabulous way to do some inner-work identifying who it is God is calling you to be in and for the world.

Speaking as a parent of small children, it does my heart good to see this kind of exploration in any parish. Maybe planting is your thing, maybe it is social justice, maybe you offer piano accompaniment, middle of the night adoration shifts, help with youth group, visiting the homebound, serving as a Lector or Eucharistic minister. Whatever it is, it is powerful for me to see young adults in positions of service and leadership among the ranks of seasoned parishioners. It is powerful for my children, too.

Like the bulbs planted on the Feast of Guardian Angels, the fruit of this quiet work you are doing offers a breath of fresh air for the body of believers, and a quintessential bit of the practice of discernment. Thank you for the ways big or small that you contribute your gifts to the whole of the community—we are blessed because of it.

 

Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom His love entrusts me here, ever this day [night] be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.



 

A Cultural Diagnosis with a Christocentric Cure

 

As a PA student, I am learning how to put together a patient's symptoms and past medical history to create a list of what is called "differential diagnoses," which is used to help form a diagnosis and treatment plan. The symptoms are like pieces to a puzzle that, when put together, reveal the full picture. Learning these techniques has made me look at our world in a similar way.
            One of modern society's symptoms includes avoiding suffering; and, our self-prescribed treatment is egocentrism. Additionally, history reveals man's constant struggle with accepting pain. Looking at these presentations, at the top of my differential diagnosis list is pathophobia, meaning a fear of suffering. And it is understandable. Written in our biology is an aversion toward pain and suffering because it is a threat to our existence. Take a wound for instance. It could lead to bleeding out, or an infection, if left untreated. Our inherent evasion of pain and suffering is a self-preservation instinct.
            However, there is much pain and suffering that is not life-threatening. Yet, we still react to it in the same way as we would react to a fatal wound. There are many things that can cause pain, physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, throughout the day. You may be slighted by your coworker or friend, you may be laughed at, or you may have to skip that meal you have been looking forward to because of your workload. For many people, suffering is not that severe most of the time, as shown by the #firstworldproblems hashtag. People lament their Starbucks order getting messed up or that they are cold because they forgot to bring their jacket to work today, and then post about it, joking or seriously, on social media to attract more attention. These are very superficial struggles that do not deserve to be complained about because there are so many more people who do not even have enough to buy a coffee or a jacket. Sometimes though, you may experience severe suffering - a family member's death, a chronic illness, losing your job, or a natural disaster. These are, unfortunately, unavoidable parts of human existence. We must accept both of these types of suffering, and find meaning in their greater purpose.
            Many virtuous people have told of the inevitability of suffering. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, tells us that, "without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete." How ironic is it that life is contingent upon death and suffering? We cannot fully know that we are alive without knowing what the opposite of life is. It is because of death and suffering that we value life. Another person laden with physical suffering, Helen Keller, wrote, "only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved." She, who knew adversity on a daily basis, understood it as a way through which she could grow in virtue. Likewise, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, saw beauty in suffering. He says, "suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind." This "greatness of mind" is the virtue of being able to step outside of your suffering and see a greater purpose in the hardship.
            Jesus Christ gives profound meaning to our suffering. He tells us, "in the world you will have trouble," admitting that it is inevitable (John 16:33). The encounters in the Gospels are often with people suffering, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Through them, Jesus teaches us that our suffering is not a punishment. He tells his disciples, regarding a man blind from birth, "neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him" (John 9:3). Jesus did not come to the world to acquit our suffering. Rather, he came to show us how to suffer and to redeem our suffering through his Passion - his suffering. He has felt our hurt, and carried it on his shoulders. The second part of John 16:33 continues, "but take courage, for I have conquered the world." Christ relieves our suffering through his compassion, literally meaning to suffer with another.
            It is the acceptance of our burdens and our uniting them with His cross that allows us to grow in virtue. In John 16, under the subtitle "the conditions of discipleship," Jesus tells us,


"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?" (John 16:24-26)
 

Ironically, by accepting our suffering, it is eased, by Christ. It is a part of our being his disciple. And, it is not that we must begrudgingly accept our cross by ourself, so that we may reach heaven. Rather, if we allow Christ to, he walks beside us on the journey to salvation. He helps give meaning to our suffering in the present moment by accompanying us and reminding us how our suffering is a part of his salvific mission.
            So, this is our treatment plan as a society. We have the opportunity to step outside of our daily suffering and to see a greater purpose in it. It may come as embracing the difficulties of your studies, allowing yourself to grow in discipline and wisdom. Or, it can be sacrificing your dessert as redemptive suffering for a sick friend. With Christ's help, we can offer up our suffering for a greater purpose - for our salvation and the salvation of the whole world. And one day, we will be able to be where "there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain" (Revelation 21:4). If we do not let our suffering control us, but see it as a chance for grace and challenge toward growth, we will continue to increase in virtue each day and attract others toward a similar lifestyle.

Benedictine Vows Part 2: Stability

In my previous article, I discussed how the Benedictine vow of conversatio morum addressed the idea that change is the only constant in the universe.  If change is constant, then we can strive to change our lives so that they might reflect more clearly God’s image in each of us.  But is change really the only constant in the universe?  

Consider eternal truths and laws of nature.  Do they change?  On our planet, drop a pen and it will always fall to the floor.  If we put our hands on a hot stove, we will get burned.  If we violate one of God’s commandments, our consciences will be pricked.  If we reject God, He will still love us.  When we ask God to forgive us, He does -  again, and again, and again - “seventy times seven,” as Jesus says! (Matthew 18:22)  Some things just are, and this is what St. Benedict’s vow of stability reflects - that we are grounded in, and may even allow ourselves to be formed by, unchanging and universal truths written on the human soul.

As we previously acknowledged, the riddle of change and permanence is nothing new.  In ancient Greece, Heraclitus described the universe as ever changing; to him, permanence was an illusion.  However, not all agreed with him.  As in modern times, there was a diversity of thought.

Before we turn to St. Benedict’s vow of “stability,” let us take a look at Parmenides, a younger contemporary of Heraclitus.  Parmenides is “the philosopher of permanence.”  (I teach my students to remember the difference between the two: Parmenides and “permanence” begin with the letter “p”).  Parmenides is Heraclitus’ polar opposite: unlike Hercaclitus where “all is change,” for Parmenides, change is an illusion because “all is one.”  His argument can be surmised as follows:  “What is cannot not not be, and what is not is not anything at all; what is cannot pass away, and what is not cannot come from what is not.”  Therefore, change is impossible.  In his view, sense perception cannot be trusted to reveal truth; change and movement are nothing more than perceptions of reality that is changeless and permanent.  Parmenides’ philosophy distinguishes between “the way of truth” and “the way of opinion,” and it is not hard to guess which would be his idea of reality.

This brings us to St. Benedict and his vow of stability.  For all the chaos and violence in the world, certain things just persist.  We can find enduring joy in living in a world that is good, holy, beautiful and true - a world already redeemed by Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:7).  The Benedictine vow of stability helps us open up to this underlying reality.  Benedictine monasteries rose up all over Europe just as Roman civilization began to collapse, and they were the places that preserved learning and cultivated erudition during these “Dark Ages.”  Countless generations of monks and nuns followed God’s call to live under the Rule of Benedict in an ordered and structured manner - in a life of stability equally balanced between “ora et labora” or “prayer and work.”  They did so in answer to His call that the Church might “pray without ceasing” (1st Thessalonians 5:1) so that the world might be sanctified, that all might be open and receptive to our unchanging and all merciful God.

A few metaphors can help us understand the Benedictine vow of stability.  A sailing vessel has sails and a keel.  If the vow of conversatio morum catches the wind in the sails, the vow of stability is the keel that keeps the ship from being blown sideways and provides the ballast that keeps the boat from capsizing.  Staying with the ship metaphor, one could also describe the vow of stability as the anchor of a ship within a safe harbor.

To use a different metaphor, Benedictine monasteries and our vow of stability provide a “field hospital” for the Church - a place where people overwhelmed by the pressures and burdens of everyday life might retreat from the world in order to to seek and encounter the God who is eternal and unchanging.  It is a great privilege to be able to provide such a place for those working in our nation’s capital who need the safe harbor of the monastery where the Divine Physician can heal wounds and restore one’s equilibrium.  

Some might rightly say, “well, don’t the Dominicans and Franciscans and countless other religious orders provide the same?”  Of course they do, and thanks be to God for the diversity of religious charisms in the Church!  However, as I explained to someone, when I was attending a Washington Nationals Baseball game during the  August gathering of the Catholic Beer Club, I had to leave the game at the top of the third inning to get back to the monastery in time to pray Vespers with my brothers.  Our mendicant brothers could easily have had their breviaries with them and invited people to join them by praying Vespers in their seats at the ballpark.  That is their role in sanctifying the world - to be with the people and witness to the joy of the gospel!  But that witness needs, behind the scenes, the backup of the Benedictines, with our vow of stability, reliably counted on to be in a fixed place at a fixed time every day of the year, year after year, century after century.

So, just as change is an evident and an ever present reality of human existence, so too, there are eternal and unchanging truths, revealed by an eternal and unchanging Creator who wrote the truths into the structure of the universe.  Through human reason we can ascertain such truths and by God’s grace be conformed by them.  As with Heraclitus’ change so to with Parmenides permanence; as with the vow of conversatio morum, so too, the vow of stability - the human condition experiences both opposing realities simultaneously.  It is difficult of course, even for a monk, to reconcile change and permanence within oneself, which brings to us to the final vow for our next discussion: the vow of obedience.

There's Something to be Said About Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

We all have our worst fears. And if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to obsess about them and let them dominate my life. It’s all too easy to instantly become negative and allow fears, worries and anxieties overpower our faith in the Lord’s plans for our lives. Or, even worse, we begin to suspect or blame God in the supposed unfolding of these problems that might not have even happened yet.

Fear is a human aspect and is something characters throughout salvation history have struggled with. Even when the Lord reaches out His hand and does amazing deeds, humanity is all too quick to forget God’s goodness, or become disillusioned and bitter. This plays out multiple times in the books of Exodus and Numbers, where the Israelites complain about the food the Lord has given them, about what they left behind in Egypt (besides slavery) and where the Lord is taking them.

When Moses leads the Israelites to the land “flowing with milk and honey,” they become consumed with fear because they’re afraid of the current inhabitants of the land, completely forgetting the extraordinary miracles that brought them out of slavery and sustained them on their journey:

“All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, the whole community saying to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or that here in the desert we were dead! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land only to have us fall by the sword? Our wives and little ones will be taken as booty. Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?…Let us appoint a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14: 2-4)

In response, the Lord allows exactly what they feared to happen, because they wouldn’t make space in their lives for God and because they refused to trust in Him. He withdraws and without God, their worst fears indeed take place:

“The Lord also said to Moses and Aaron: ‘How long will this wicked community grumble against me?… By my life, says the Lord, I will do to you just what I have heard you say. Here in the desert shall your dead bodies fall….Your little ones, however, who you said would be taken as booty, I will bring in, and they shall appreciate the land you spurned. But as for you, your bodies shall fall here in the desert, here where your children must wander for forty years, suffering your faithlessness, till the last of you lies dead in the desert.” (Numbers 14: 26-29, 31-33)

The Israelites became victims to a self-fulfilling prophecy and their own fears indeed came into being because they refused to believe in the Lord, and the Lord allowed those fears to become actualized. It’s easy to look at this ancient example and scoff at their faithlessness, but the reality is that we make the same mistakes in our own lives time and time again. We also refuse to trust in the Lord because our fears seem more substantial than trusting that the Lord has our best interests in mind. When we encounter the unknown, we shy away and want to turn back to the familiar past, even when we bemoaned the tribulations of what we endured in the past. By making our fears tantamount, we push the Lord aside and sometimes invite what we feared to come into being.  At the same time, it can be incredibly difficult to trust in the Lord, especially when He’s calling us into the unknown, but a life without trust in the Lord as Christians is not a Christian life at all.

But, as the Lord has also done throughout salvation history, He’s always ready to reward faith and renew His promises, as we make our way through this desert of life to the Promised Land waiting for our souls at the end of our earthly days. As long as we hope, we can prevent these dark omens of the unknown from become dismal self-fulfilled prophecies.

Gaze: The Importance of Orienting Ourselves Toward Jesus

            I’ve heard it said, “Eyes are a window to the soul.” Nobody really knows who said it.  Some believe Shakespeare said it, but others claim biblical origins.  Regardless of the quote’s origin, most of us can attest to its meaning.  When we look at someone, especially for prolonged periods of time, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  In fact, a 1989 study was published in The Journal of Research in Personality called, “Looking and Loving:  The Effects of Mutual Gaze on Feelings of Romantic Love” found that “subjects induced to exchange mutual unbroken gaze for 2 minutes with a stranger of the opposite sex reported increased feelings of passionate love for each other.”  What does this mean for us?  It means that who we look at sparks passions, and love.  This might mean, that though sometimes the developments of feelings may have something to do with “love at first sight” more often than not it has to do with time spent in the presence of another person. 

            The gazes lovers share are not always passionate.  And those passionate moments are not the only times that love grows.  Sometimes, love grows in just an absent-minded stare over a bowl of cereal on Saturday morning or a glance upward while brushing your teeth.  Sometimes it’s just a subconscious awareness that another person is in the room with you while you check your e-mail, watch the news, or cook dinner.  In times like these, you may not even need words.  You just might glance over at that person, know that he or she is there, and relax into that presence.  If that person falls asleep, you might walk more quietly so as not to wake him/her.  The bottom line is that over time, we subconsciously change the direction of our lives, when we are in the presence of others, especially if that person is someone we love.  Try as we might, the more we look at someone, the harder it is to walk in a different direction than he/she does.

            The truth is that if we really love someone, and allow ourselves to be truly present to him/her regularly, it is difficult to really stray from that loving relationship.  It is one of the reasons why long distance relationships can be so difficult.  We crave that contact.  We crave just knowing that another person is in the room with us.

            What does this mean for my relationship with the Lord?  It means that looking at the Lord is vital to having any kind of a relationship with Him.  As Catholics, we can gaze upon the face of the Lord anytime we want in the Holy Eucharist.  If we just show up, for even a brief moment, we can gaze at the Lord, while He looks back at us (the way lovers do), to invoke passion. There may be times during this stare when we leave totally on fire with love for God.  Those days are like the clarity of a first kiss that causes your stomach to fill with butterflies.  It’s really easy to want to be in the presence of God when this happens.  It may happen for you.  It may not.  More often than not though, gazing at the Lord may feel more like doing required laundry with someone you love than dancing with your husband for the first time on your wedding day.  Luckily, the Lord does not need butterflies and lightening bolts to change your life and your heart, even though he may use them sometimes. Choosing to be in the Lord’s presence regularly makes it difficult to stray too far from His loving embrace even if you don’t feel or can’t understand it.  Just like it’s impossible to walk in a straight line for very long with your head turned to the right, it’s hard to walk away from the Lord if you regularly look at Him.  You might take some detours, but you can’t get too far off track if you just look at Him.  The gaze is powerful.  His gaze can change every sinner to a saint, sometimes actively, sometimes passively.  Somebody, somewhere once said that the “eyes are the windows to the soul.” What would happen, if you just looked at the Lord?

Work.

With Labor Day coming up, I thought this would be a good time to meditate on work- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Work in and of itself is good.  Consider these quotes by St. Pope John Paul II on work:

“Through all these surroundings, through my own experience of work, I boldly say that I learned the gospel anew.”

“Work is good for us. Through work we not only transform nature, adapting it to our needs, but we also achieve fulfillment as human beings and indeed in a sense become more human.”

“The Son of God became man and worked with human hands…. So we know, not only by reason alone but through revelation, that through their work people share in the Creator’s work.”

“The church is convinced that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth…. The church considers it her duty to speak out on work…. It is her particular duty to form a spirituality of work which will help all people to come closer, through work, to God…. This Christian spirituality of work should be a heritage shared by all.”

But in the age of rampant workaholism and equally rampant arrested development, our approach to work can be troublesome.  We are living in a divided time.  We bemoan the same fault lines all the time- secularists vs. religious, leftists vs. right-wingers, millennials vs. just about everyone else.  But there might be a more devious debate raging that we don’t often notice:  the place of work in our lives.  Total work vs. the quietists.

A friend of mine recently drove to a small, middle-of-nowhere town in Nebraska to watch the eclipse.  As he waited for the big moment he was floored.  The farmers’ machinery was buzzing along as if it was a normal day.  Cars were bustling on the highway.  People were working everywhere.  Then the total eclipse came and there was silence for a full two minutes.  Then as soon as the sun peaked out a little bit the whir of engines began again.  He couldn’t believe that workers couldn’t pause even a full five minutes to appreciate the phenomenon.  This is a society of total work.

I heard another story about a wealthy man from China who endured weeks of torture for housing a secret Catholic parish in his house.  The authorities interrupted a mass going on in his house and he rushed the congregation and the priest out before they could get caught.  Throughout all that torture he never gave up the name of the priest.  The authorities let him go and he immigrated to America.  He lived the American dream, opened his own restaurant, and started to see it thrive a bit.  He put in long, hard hours. Understandably his daily mass attendance wavered, but incredibly a few years into his business venture he had completely lapsed in his practice of the faith.  The speaker telling this story came to this conclusion:  what torture could not drive out of a man the American culture did.  Torture could not cause this man to become an apostate, but our American work ethic did.  And we applaud stories like his all the time.  This is a society of total work.

But at the same time we all know people who are so offended at not receiving a promotion every couple of years or a raise every month or so.  They aren’t rewarded for just showing up and they take offense.  Instead of keeping their noses down, working harder, and earning their raises and promotions they go off to another job.  They don’t learn and improve, they escape, so they can better validate their own opinions of the injustice done to them.  They won’t confront their laziness. This is the society of quietism.

I remember buying my first iPhone my senior year of college and purchasing a 2 gig data plan.  The salesmen assured me that I would never need 2 full gigs.  That was crazy.  No one used their phone that much.  Three years later I saw a video with the statistic that the average American will spend four full calendar year's worth of time on their phone in a lifetime.  Four wasted years!  We all basically die four years early.  It takes time off of our lives, because that’s not life.  This is the society of quietism.

Total work- meaning calculated by hours work, sweat poured out, goals achieved, productivity goals made.  It is a frantic work from sun up to sundown until utterly exhausted, the workers collapse in a heap.  Their state is constantly activity and equally constant exhaustion.  Even, maybe especially, Christian workers are inundated with this philosophy, but it becomes even more assiduous with the illusion of the cross of Christ adorning it- the heresy of good works.  Activism pushes Christ off the throne of their hearts.  There’s a constant sense of anxiety in the worker's mind.  Am I working hard enough?  Should I be doing something else?  I should, what else should I be doing?  Who is working harder than me?  Who notices?  It goes on and on.

Quietism- a passive withdrawn attitude or policy toward the world or worldly affairs.  The quietists are content to sit on their phones, tune out from outward reality, and in the Christian sense, to think that this is living on a deep level.  They fly by life, expecting to somehow be absorbed into greatness without lifting a finger.  These are tourists, the people who believe if they read a mountaineer's blog that they are somehow mountaineers themselves or if they read up on leadership practices that they are somehow a great leader.  They’re not a people of sweat, but a people marked with deep anxiety that their lives may be wasting away because they haven’t achieved what they want with their lives.  

These two profiles of course aren’t the only ones in our society, but they are two dominating strains.  When they meet it is toxic.  Judgement, complaining, guilt-tripping, backbiting, societal pressures, etc. abound.  

I’m sure, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can all identify with thoughts, opinions, and feelings from both aisles.